The MoSCoW method is a prioritization technique used by project and campaign managers to work smarter not harder. In this quick guide, we’ll explain exactly what the MoSCoW method is, how it works, and provide some examples you can use to inform your own analysis. Keep reading to better understand the various categories within the MoSCoW method, as well as an alternative prioritization tool for project managers.

What is the MoSCow method?

The MoSCoW method is a technique used by organizations to communicate the importance and priority of the various requirements being met in various projects. This method is also referred to as MoSCoW prioritization and MoSCoW analysis.

The term MoSCoW is an acronym that refers to the first letter of each of the four priority categories. It uses four categories, which are must-have, should-want, could-have, and will not have. While it’s meant to be used at the start of a project when time is on your side, it can also be adapted to work seamlessly for time constraints.

Software developer Dai Clegg originally created the MoScoW method. Since then, many other leading companies have used it to get their team on the same page, properly distribute resources, and achieve project goals. 

How does the MoSCow technique work?

The MoSCoW technique works by allowing teams to include multiple representatives from the organization in their project management discussions. This gives everyone a wider perspective on the organization's operations and where their collective priorities lie. 

Before you begin your MoSCoW method, think about which people can provide valuable context for your team. They can help you identify opportunities and threats, and they can help you make better decisions. Once finalized, the MoSCoW method will also force stakeholders to show evidence before they can submit additional work requests mid-project. 

Critics of MoSCoW often say that it does not include a comprehensive objective scoring system for all initiatives. This is a common mistake that many teams make. A weighted scoring method will more accurately measure the backlog against a set of predefined benefits and costs.

One of the most challenging aspects of the MoSCoW technique is learning which categories their initiatives should go in.  As the manager, you will need to know which of your team's initiatives are “must haves” for their product or which are merely “should haves”. 

You may even need to solicit feedback from a different department in order to get greater perspective on your current project prioritization. For example, a marketing department head may have greater insight into which selling points for your upcoming product launch are resonating more with buyers so that you can work on perfecting those components first. 

Another key idea about how the MoSCoW technique works is that it’s only effective if you follow it. This means that, once an initiative is placed into a category, the entire team needs to stick to that decision. Many beginner MoSCoW teams end up agreeing that an initiative should have been initiated, but they move on to the next step instead because it feels better or more familiar to them. 

Finally, when it comes to making decisions about prioritization, your team will need to have a consistent framework in place before you engage with this technique. A consistent framework for assessing and ranking all initiatives is critical if you want to avoid biases and falling into old patterns. 

Your team’s prioritization strategy helps set expectations across the organization. It lets them know that they have made the right decisions and weigh all the factors that go into making those decisions. Don’t be afraid to make your MoSCoW method results available to the rest of your organization if applicable. 

Understanding MoSCow prioritization categories

Before the MoSCoW analysis can begin, all participants need to agree on which initiatives will be prioritized. It's important to discuss how to resolve disagreements in order to prevent them from holding up progress during this preparation stage. This can help prevent issues from happening in the first place.

Once the framework has been established, it is time to start identifying the appropriate categories for each project. Here are the definitions and explanations of each of the MoSCoW prioritization categories: 

Must have

Musts are defined as initiatives that are critical to the success of a project or product. These are usually non-negotiable and can be used to describe specific functionalities or solutions that need to be implemented.

The “must have” category is challenging to define. Before you start, ask yourself if something is truly necessary in this category.

Should have

Although “should have” initiatives are not essential to a product or project, they may add significant value. A “should have” initiative is different from a “must have” initiative, which means it can be scheduled for a future release.

Could have

“Could haves” are initiatives that are not necessary to the core of a product. Projects that are placed in the “could have” category are often the first ones to be deprioritized when another project takes longer than expected.

Will not have

The MoSCoW method places several initiatives in a “will not have” category. This method allows you to manage expectations about what will not be included in a release or another timeframe.

Putting initiatives in the “will not have" category can help prevent scope creep. This category shows the team that the project is not a priority at this specific time frame. 

Some initiatives are prioritized in the “will not have” group, while others are likely to happen in the future. Some teams then decide to create a subcategory for these initiatives.

How is the MoSCoW method used in project management?

The concept of MoSCoW allows project managers to prioritize tasks that can be done efficiently even when they have limited time. For example, if the team has a tight budget, it can use MoSCoW to determine which initiatives can be completed within those limitations. 

This is especially useful for managers juggling more than project or leading cross-functional teams. This is because cross-functional teams are sometimes obligated to another company or department’s priorities. While your team is working on a new product release, another project manager may have them on a tight timeline for another client’s goal. 

And, as we all know, things come up throughout the lifespan of a project. Although efficient planning helps teams remain agile, the MoSCoW method can make even the biggest and most unexpected roadblocks more manageable. 

MoSCoW examples

This method can be used for nearly any industry or project type because it has to do more with project decision-making than the subject matter itself. Here are a couple of MoSCoW method examples you can use to get started with your first draft: 

1. National College of Ireland’s website project

In this example from a lecture on the MoSCoW analysis, Professor Eugene O’Loughlin demonstrates how to use this technique when building a website

The project goal in this example is to create a platform where users can securely log in and access files. Because of this, the tasks listed under their MoSCoW categories will look different from other standard website creation projects. 

For example, while another project may add “have an eye-catching design” to their should-have section, this particular website has added “password retrieval” because it directly applies to their security-oriented goal. 

Even if this website project could benefit from a great design, the MoSCoW method helps managers and teams laser focus on completing the highest priority activities first. If they have more time later on, they can potentially add a design improvement task to their “could haves” if they determine the ROI is high enough. 

Takeaway: Consider your project holistically when assigning priority. Your goals should be your north star for determining what is or is not truly important, regardless of what conventional wisdom says to do. 

2. Slideteam’s Assessing HR Requirements Template

This is one of the MoSCoW examples that shows how many different types of tasks this technique covers. Here, we see storing employee leave history as a must, leave letter printing a should, notifications for pending leave dates a could, and remote access a won’t. 

In HR, many of their decisions around prioritization will be made by compliance and legal counsel that they must adhere to. Still, it’s important to define these tasks and their MoSCoW label so that employees understand at a glance that it’s less important to set up leave notifications and more important that they update employment histories in their software. 

Takeaway: The MoSCoW method can be used to cover many different aspects of projects including compliance and procedure. 

How to undertake a MoSCoW analysis using Wrike

Wrike is a project management software that allows users to strategize how they prioritize their portfolio of projects as well as the tasks within each individual initiative. Using visual tools such as road maps that show what progress will look like from kickoff to completion, managers can easily see which of their chosen MoSCoW analysis configurations work best for achieving their goals. 

Wrike also allows you to centralize all of your project planning in one central location. You can view potential resource conflicts across projects, individual task progress statuses, and automate tasks from your should or could have categories that you otherwise wouldn’t have time for. 

Ready to get started with the MoSCoW method and Wrike? Sign up for a two-week free trial today.